Monsters on the mind: opera stars in 18th-century London

The transformation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb into The Opera of Operas  in 1733 cemented both Thumb’s popularity and the aura of oddity surrounding contemporary Italian opera singers. It has not been noticed, however, that Fielding’s original Tom Thumb (1730) was already a parody of an opera of sorts, namely Samuel Johnson’s bizarre - and bizarrely popular - Hurlothrumbo (1729). Like another unnoticed Johnson parody, Henry Carey’s Chrononhotonthologos produced in 1734, Fielding’s burlesque highlights Londoners’ view of Johnson’s opera as an (unwitting) articulation of all that was wrong with the operatic establishment. I’ve discussed elsewhere what Hurlothrumbo said to contemporaries about Italian opera; but what did Tom Thumb say? In this paper I will argue that Fielding’s choice of the tiny Tom Thumb as his leading man not only literally burlesques Johnson’s hero-on-stilts Lord Flame (by bringing a high story low), it also comments on the way Italian opera’s primo uomo, Senesino, was perceived at that time.

Suzanne Aspden
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Robinson College, Cambridge, UK